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Wasserman Schultz Looks to Hold Line in Sanders Proxy War

Former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz is facing a Sanders-backed primary challenge Tuesday—who has doubts about whether Sanders helped or hurt.
Image: Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairperson of the Democratic National Committee (DNC)
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairperson of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), speaks during a campaign event for Hillary Clinton in Miami on July 23, 2016.Bloomberg / Bloomberg via Getty Images

HOLLYWOOD, Florida—There are Bernie Sanders signs on the walls of Tim Canova’s field office here, where former staffers and volunteers from the Vermont senator’s presidential campaign now work the phones and prepare to knock doors in a heated congressional primary against former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

A whopping $3.8 million dollars worth of Berniecrat anger at Wasserman Schultz, who stepped down from her DNC post amid accusations she and top staffers had worked against Sanders in his primary challenge to Hillary Clinton, has flooded to Canova. That's given the little-known law professor a shot at toppling the six-term congresswoman in Tuesday’s primary.

Sanders looms large in the race, but always out of frame. The senator himself never made it here, infuriating some supporters and raising doubts in the minds of others about his new efforts to help allied candidates.

Reflecting on the race as it comes to a close, Canova seems to wonder if Sanders’ help was more trouble than it’s worth. “Bernie is not on the ballot, and I think coming here might have presented certain liabilities anyway, so it might be a blessing that he never came,” Canova told NBC News.

Related: How Bernie Sanders Avoided Disclosing His Personal Finances

Given who his opponent is, Canova became a vessel for the Sanders movement, and the highest profile candidate on a list of down-ballot candidates it sought to support.

“He is blessed that this happened with Bernie. I mean who is he?” said Lourdes Ferrer, who voted for Clinton presidential primary, but for Canova in the congressional race because she wants change and thinks Wasserman Schultz’s national role distracted her from representing the district.

Sanders endorsed Canova, who kicked off his campaign with a Q&A on a pro-Sanders Reddit channel, and sent several fundraising emails for the professor he once appointed to a Senate panel.

But Canova will need a lot more voters like Ferrer, since Clinton carried this district by 68-31 percent in the March 15 presidential primary. The race was always going an uphill battle, no matter who much Sanders helped.

Canova is a passionate advocate in his own right, whom supporters compare Elizabeth Warren, another professor-turned-pol.

“He been yelling at the top of his lungs for the better part of three decades about these issues,” said Canova’s older brother, Tom.

Related: Ousted From DNC, Wasserman Schultz Fighting to Stay in House

Still, everyone acknowledges the race has attracted outsize attention and money as a proxy fight between Sanders and Wasserman Schultz. “I don’t know how much of it is an anti-vote and how much of it is a pro-vote,” said Canova supporter Pat Graef of those who will vote for Canova. “Probably 50-50.”

And as much the proxy war put Canova on the map, it also put him in a box. Constantly asked about and compared to Sanders, it's made it harder for Canova to distinguish himself.

“I think for a long time people just counted us out because they looked at what happened in March and said, well Bernie lost badly, 2-1, how could Canova ever win? Because Canova of course is just a mini-Bernie—It's a ridiculous caricature,” he said.

“Bernie ran a lousy campaign in Florida,” Canova said. “Bernie had his problems with certain constituencies that I don't have problems with.”

At a candidate forum Sunday night featuring Canova and two Republican congressional candidates (Wasserman Schultz was invited but did not attend), the Republicans mentioned Sanders before Canova did.

A recent South Florida Sun Sentinel/Florida Atlantic University poll showed Wasserman Schultz with a 10 point lead over Canova and just barely hitting 50 percent—not an ideal cushion for an incumbent, but not a bad one either.

Canova and his allies predict an upset, saying the polls might be missing voters Canova supporters who don’t typically turn out for an August primary.

"Our ground game is so big that we've really expanded the field,” Canova said. Indeed, flush with more than 200,000 donations averaging $22 a piece, Canova has built what allies tout as possibly the largest field program of any congressional race in the country—four field offices, 40 paid staffers, and hundreds of volunteers.

Wasserman Schultz, who has never faced a primary opponent, was undoubtedly damaged when she resigned under a cloud from her role as DNC chair after Wikileaks published emails that seemed to confirm the party favored Hillary Clinton over Sanders.

As DNC Chair, Wasserman Schultz spent much of her time at Democratic fundraisers outside her district, which has prompted criticism that she lost focus of local issues or become too beholden to big money. And after 12 years in office, some just want new blood.

"Just as the DNC has new leadership, we believe the district deserves new leadership, too,” wrote the Miami Times, one of two African-American newspapers in the district to endorse Canova.

But many voters in the district, which has a large community of Northeast Jews who retired to the area, have deep personal ties to Wasserman Schultz and seem unconcerned by the DNC dustup.

“When you think about, how do guys like Eric Cantor lose? Sure there's all the ideological stuff that he's dealing with, but there was also a sense that he never went home,” said Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale, referring to the former House Majority Leader’s 2014 primary loss. “I don't think you're going to find anyone in South Florida who's going to say Debbie lost touch with her district.”

Wasserman Schultz kept her children in school in Florida and is known for having responsive constituent services. Canova, meanwhile, was largely unknown in political circles before jumping into the race.

Related: Inside the Bernie Sanders Proxy War in Florida

“She’s always been that sweet kid. I admire her stamina. With three children and cancer and Congress, and then the DNC,” said Sophie Bock, the president of the Democratic Club in Century Village, one of the largest and retirement complexes in the district, who has known Wasserman Schultz since the future politician was an aide to a former congressman in her 20s.

Wasserman Schultz has spoken publically about her battle with breast cancer, and Bock said residents are happy the congresswoman will have even more time for them now that she’s no longer chairwoman of the party.

For every Bernie Sanders that did not make it to the district, Wasserman Schultz has many more national leaders that did: President Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, Rep. John Lewis, and many more.

An outside group called Patriot Majority has also spent more than $600,000 backing Wasserman Schultz, much to the consternation of Canova, who often criticizes the group as a shadowy tool of special interests.

Canova’s campaign alleges it was cyber-attacked late last week when someone tried to flood their email fundraising system with more than 100,000 bogus email addresses. Revolution Messaging, the digital firm that worked for Sanders and is now working with Canova, said it had no evidence about who might have perpetrated the alleged attack.

But Canova had ideas. “High up on my list of suspects would be the super PAC people. They have the resources, they have the motivation, they have enough distance from Wasserman Schultz that she can deny having any involvement,” Canova said, before mentioning Patriot Majority by name.

Craig Varoga, the founder and president of Patriot Majority, brushed away the allegation. “Honestly, I don’t know whether to laugh and mock that accusation, or just dismiss it for what it is, a complete lie. I guess some people just think and say weird things when they’re under pressure,” Varoga said.

Kingmaker is a new role for Sanders, and it's one that so far hasn't come naturally.

Unlike Warren, who regularly coordinates with progressive groups on strategy and lends a hand on fundraising, the independent Sanders has never been much of a team player—even with progressives in Vermont.

Sanders launched the group Our Revolution last week, which is designed to help elect progressive candidates. But it suffered a mass resignation just before launch and its legal status prevents it from coordinating with candidates like Canova.

Our Revolution supportes Canova, but he was not one of the five candidates Sanders spotlighted when he launched the group last week.

“We have left him hanging,” former Our Revolution staffer Claire Sandberg told Democracy Now of Canova. “We legally couldn’t coordinate with Canova, couldn’t return his calls, couldn’t mobilize thousands of Bernie supporters locally in Miami or across the country to participate in his field operation, because we couldn’t talk to him.”

Related: Sanders Launches New Group Following Shakeup

Other progressives have been even more critical. Mike Figueredo, host of the progressive Humanist Report podcast, tore into the senator for “abandoning” Canova.

“I can’t rationalize this. I can’t defend you here, Bernie. This is indefensible,” he said Saturday. “The fact that you’re ditching him and obviously distancing yourself from him, for some reason, but yet are going to campaign for Hillary Clinton is absurd to me.”

“Bernie Sanders, you are supposed to be the shining example. If you sell out, we’re f*cked,” he said.

Sanders has not said why he decided against campaigning for Canova, but some national progressives have raised questions about the way Canova ran his campaign, and objected strongly to his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, one of President Obama’s top priorities.

Many here and in Washington suspect Sanders did not want to further antagonize Clinton, who gave Wasserman Schultz an honorary role on her campaign, and other Democratic leaders to support a candidate that was likely destine to lose anyway.

But though primaries are where Sanders’ impact could matter most, supporters say, and he’s so far avoided most of them this year as he tries to thread the needle between the establishment and opposition.

Back at Canova’s field office in Hollywood, the lesson from the race was clear to Jeff Campbell, a longtime Democratic campaign volunteer. “We’ve got to do it here, on our own. We can’t wait around for Bernie,” he said.